Yasujiro Ozu has often been called the “most Japanese” of Japan’s great directors. From 1927, the year of his debut for Shochiku studios, to 1962, when, a year before his death at age sixty, he made his final film, Ozu consistently explored the rhythms and tensions of a country trying to reconcile modern and traditional values, especially as played out in relations between the generations. Though he is best known for his sobering 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story, the apex of his portrayals of the changing Japanese family, Ozu began his career in the thirties, in a more comedic, though still socially astute, mode. We countdown his 10 best starting with…
Ozu very effectively uses minimal dialogue, little or no music, and subtlety to draw the viewer into the setting and paint a realistic picture of everyday life. I felt instant connection with Setsuko Hara as vivacious and indomitable Noriko. Her brother, Koichi (Chishu Ryu) was impeneterably unemotional, probably stereotypically so. Koichi’s wife, Aya Tamura (Chikage Awashima) seemed a tamer version of Noriko, almost like an older sister from the same roots. The parents Shukichi Mamiya (Ichiro Sugai) and his wife Shige (Chieko Higashiyama) were realistically portrayed as being content in fulfilling their familial responsibilities, and provided an even emotional keel.
Much later in the film, you discover that there is a lot more to this family–much, much more. Their mother apparently abandoned the family many years ago and is now trying to re-establish contact with her kids. A brother was apparently killed years earlier. And, the youngest is pregnant and contemplating having an abortion! From the introduction of all these plot points, things get even worse–leading to a very, very sad conclusion to the film. While this is anything but fun to watch, the movie is constructed so well and the characters are quite interesting.
This is the very simple story but this is not what makes the film a masterpiece. The great achievement is that Ozu shows how poverty affects the human mind. He depicts the fear and the feeling of senselessness in a way that nobody else has ever done. Many of the devices him employs are very imaginative.
The story centres around a widow (Setsuko Hara) and her daughter (Yoko Tsukasa). The daughter doesn’t want to get married because she wants to care for her mother, whereas the mother wants her daughter to marry even though she realises she’ll be left alone. Ozu’s common themes of ageing, filial ties and modernisation are as present here as in many other of his films. But in this film, as well as the melancholy and gentleness we are accustomed to, there are large doses of comedy which makes this film far more accessible for the uninitiated.
With this single storyline, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu exposes a delightful and critical view of the behavior of the Japanese working class under the American influence in the post-WWII. Once again the major concern of Ozu is with the family and human relationship. The situation of the retired people is magnificently pictured through the desperate men looking for a job; the domination of the USA in Japan is represented through the need of private English classes for the two brothers, and the translation of documents to English; superfluous consume of the American society is represented through the importance of the useless television for the younger generation, while their parents are concerned with have some savings for their retirement.
What fascinates me about Ozu’s idiosyncratic style is how he relies on insinuation to carry his story forward. In fact, some of the more critical events happen off-camera because Ozu’s simple, penetrating observations of these characters’ lives remain powerfully insightful without being contrived. Ozu scholar David Desser, who provides insightful commentary on the alternate audio track, explains this concept as “narrative ellipses”, Ozu’s singularly effective means of providing emotional continuity to a story without providing all the predictable detail in between. Ozu also positions his camera low throughout his film to replicate the perspective of someone sitting on a tatami mat. It adds significantly to the humanity he evokes.
The story is straightforward – an unhappy marriage between a rich girl and her successful but relatively low born husband. She can’t hide her contempt for his dullness and rustic ways. He is unhappy but never argues back, just finds his own little ways of getting pleasure out of life. A series of incidents finds them having an unexpected late night simple meal (green tea over rice is essentially ‘leftovers’ when nothing else is available) and suddenly she realizes she loves him after all.
As always with Ozu, the richness is in the characters. Taeko, played by Michiyo Kogure is spoiled and insensitive, but a compelling, capricious character. Mokicho (the husband) under his dull salary-man skin is really a sensitive, caring man. The other characters are all vivid and memorable, especially Setsuko, the headstrong niece. There are also wonderful set pieces, usually involving Taekos friends, having little girls nights together, gossiping about their husbands and plotting marriages.
Ozu’s penultimate film, and perhaps this is reading too much into it, but its hard not to see his vision of his own impending death in it, despite the great humor in it. This is a meditation on a dying world – despite the vibrant photography, the film resonates with images of passing – constant visions of graveyards, an old dying Japan, the families roots in a dying form of business as they are overtaken by big, highly capitalised larger companies. The ending is sad and inevitable, but not tragic – life does go on, and a new generation wills step in, even if the old traditions are not maintained. One striking thing about this film is the incredible photography. Have humble domestic interiors every looked so stunningly beautiful? The lighting is luminous, every scene is as perfectly composed as a Vermeer painting.
Beyond the emotional depth, the visual depth is powerfully captivating, attesting to Ozu’s vision and almost mechanical genius. Each shot of the film is like a frame on the wall, looking into the lives of these real characters. Each scene stretches deep into the frame creating a real space which the actors explore. There is a lot of symbolism in this movie, and I certainly have lost some of the more subtle messages because of my lack of familiarity with Japanese customs and culture. And yet this film is at the same time simple, as well as modern and universal in look, we can resonate with the characters and I had less difficulty in understanding their emotions than in many other Japanese or Far East movies seen through the perspective of my ‘western’ eyes.
An Autumn Afternoon, the final film by the great Yasujiro Ozu, is a portrayal of family interaction and conflict that provides a moving summation of a career that produced 53 films in 60 years. There are several stories at work in this movie, but the primary involves a middle-aged father whose adult daughter is reluctant to marry. Long detached from her, the father realizes, only too late, that with her departure, goes the happiest chapter of his life. Ozu’s style is extremely refined at this point, and “An Autumn Afternoon” shows the director at the height of his artistic prowess. As such, this movie is a terrific introduction to Ozu, and it is a rewarding farewell for fans. Visually speaking, this one is a stunner, and every frame of the movie is a stand-alone composition.